Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Geography of Bliss

In the pleasant afterglow of the Prindle Institute happiness retreat that I attended two weeks ago, I have been on the prowl for more insights into how to be happy. Browsing in the surprisingly well-stocked bookstore in Logan Airport on my way home from the Children's Literature Association conference in Boston last weekend, I stumbled upon The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World, by Eric Weiner, and snapped it up. It proved to be a delightfully entertaining and insightful read.

A veteran foreign correspondent, Weiner decided to spend a year traveling the globe, "seeking out not the world's well-trodden trouble sports but, rather, its unheralded happy places." Working off the World Database of Happiness, he selected ten countries to visit in order to figure out why they were happy, or in some cases (Qatar, Moldova) unhappy. For each country he distilled some core lessons on happiness, always with witty commentary about the various characters he encountered along the way and the stories they shared. The full list of countries: The Netherlands, Switzerland, Bhutan, Qatar, Iceland, Moldova, Thailand, Great Britain, India, and America.

His ultimate conclusions, summarized in one short paragraph:

Money matters, but less than we think, and not in the way that we think. Family is important. So are friends. Envy is toxic. So is excessive thinking. Beaches are optional. Trust is not. Neither is gratitude.

The country that appealed to me the most, from Weiner's portrait of it, was Iceland, which he visited in the dead of its dark, dark winter. He summed up his lesson from Iceland as "Happiness is failure."  One of the reasons Iceland is such an enjoyable place to live is because it produces more artists and writers per capita than any other nation. Why so much creativity?  One of Weiner's interviewees, Larus Johannesson, tells Weiner that "It's because of failure. . . Failure doesn't carry a stigma in Iceland. In fact, in a way we admire failure." If you're free to fail, Weiner realizes, this means you're free to try. He decides that while Americans like failure, as an appetizer to whet our hunger for the story of spectacular subsequent success, "For Icelanders, failure is the main course."

Weiner explains that, "There's no one on the island telling [Icelanders] they're not good enough, so they just go ahead and sing and paint and write. One result of this freewheeling attitude is that Icelandic artists produce a lot of crap. They're the first to admit it. But crap plays an important role in the art world. In fact, it plays exactly the same role as it does in the farming world. It's fertilizer. The crap allows the good stuff to grow."

Okay. Off to write some fertilizer. And make myself a bit happier in the process.

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